Then, I had the opportunity to participate in some of Huey’s funeral at the Allen Temple Church. Thousands of people came out and personal statements were delivered by Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, and others. I remember a statement was read from Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) that said twenty years before, when our people were protesting Huey’s imprisonment in Oakland, Kwame recalled that the police that day in 1968 shouted that “if it takes twenty years, we’ll kill that n - - - _ r!" Of course, the police were incensed about Huey’s accusation of killing Oakland policeman Frey in an alleged shootout in which Huey was injured along with another cop named Heanes. I felt that the funeral was such a show of power and force from the African community that it really helped me on a spiritual level to feel that Huey’s death was a part of our continuum of struggle and not the end of anything.
Fast forward to 2019. I can’t even hardly recognize West Oakland today from what it looked like that cold morning in 1989 when Huey was killed. So many Africans have been systemically moved out of West Oakland that the complexity of the neighborhood has changed completely. And, that’s not all that’s changed. The internet has exposed us to an overwhelming nonstop flow of information. Now, I pride myself on being a prolific reader. I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about Huey and the Panther Party. I was aware of the accusations against Huey and his personal disintegration during the 1970s, but truthfully, the extent of the damage he carried out didn’t hit me until I read the book by Flores Forbes; a former Panther, entitled “Will You Die with Me?” That book, which has been collaborated by countless Panthers over the years, illustrates the degree of abuse and outright gangster activity Huey was in the leadership in carrying out throughout the 70s. Up to that point, I believe I had dismissed the charges against Huey e.g. pistol whipping a tailor and the death of a 17 year African woman, abusing Panther members/leaders, as counter intelligence information designed to discredit our movement. In truth, several Panthers like Bobby Seale, Elaine Brown, etc., people who had worked with Huey for years. Worked to get him released from prison, were ultimately abused by him. His illogical purging of loyal and dedicated Panthers like the entire Panther 21. The fact monies were misappropriated under his charge. His rampant drug usage. The Relationships ruined. And, although I knew about it all, none of it really resonated with me at that time.
Today, there is little question of Huey’s brutality. These charges are highly documented in books by Hillard, Bobby Seale, Elaine Brown, Forbes, and a number of other people. So, the question then becomes how do we react to all of this? The options are we can continue to go on as if the accusations are not true and just focus on Huey’s positive contributions. Or, we can – and this is what I believe we should do – focus on Huey as a complete human being, acknowledging his great contributions while also acknowledging his failings. Since all of us have both, taking this approach reaffirms that we are imperfect, but we can still have positive impacts. If we grow to understand this, then we can believe that everyone has potential to be healed to become a productive member of society, regardless of past discretion. Maybe this is a lesson we can learn from Huey’s life?
It makes sense to me that this is the lesson because Huey’s positive contributions are overwhelming. This African organized a group of inner city Africans to challenge the police and confront their unbridled brutality against our people. This approach impacted the psychology of our people as well as the police and has to be credited with influencing any future efforts to impact our people. I can never forget finding a copy of my father's "Playboy" magazine in 1974 specifically to look at naked women, only to find my 12 year old self enamored by the article inside titled "Why Blacks Aren't Scary Anymore." The picture was the famous one of Huey showcased above in the rattan chair with the spear and the rifle. That picture made him immortal. And, it had a huge psychological impact on African people everywhere that still has a strong impact today. It had that impact on me. In other words, the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts by Africans everywhere to create armed self-defense, etc., all of it has to credit Huey and his ideas/example. His work to guide the Panthers into becoming an international organization with revolutionary intentions made a strong indent that those of us continuing with revolutionary politics benefit from whether we know it or acknowledge it or not. The American Indian Movement credits Huey with inspiring its work. The Brown Berets credit Huey and this is confirmed by examples such as several Brown Berets coming out in 2018 to the Sacramento Black Panther 50 year commemoration to support and offer security. The proliferation of several Black Panther type organizations today is a testimony of respect to Huey's example. His courageous statement against homophobia and patriarchy, despite his personal violations, was a very strong thing to do in 1970 when virtually no one else, especially within the African world, was taking such a position. The fact he never came out, like so many others, denouncing militant and revolutionary struggle. He actually continued to promote uncompromising methods of struggle until his death. He participated in panel discussions about the Panthers and his PhD dissertation was a study of this government's illegal persecution of the Panthers. And, in one of his very final acts before leaving us, he refused to leave San Quentin Prison in 1988 after being incarcerated on various violations. He refused to leave, and forced the institution to hold him an additional five days in protest over the then continued incarceration of Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt) on clear Federal Bureau of Investigation initiated illegal charges to imprison Geronimo, ultimately for 27 long years. All of these things make Huey's positive presence in our lives ill refutable. We know that these are the reasons we know who Huey P. Newton is in the first place. We can acknowledge that without diminishing his harmful actions.
I've spent the last 10 years debating within myself about Huey. Even Huey's courageous protest at San Quentin is ironic because at least part of the reason the government's framing of Geronimo was effective was because of Huey's willingness to play directly into the hands of the government by participating, and eventually leading, the suspicious atmosphere in Oakland against Geronimo. That effort was instigated by the police and Huey's embrace of their misinformation facilitated Geronimo's isolation with Panther leadership and his eventual targeting. Huey hurt people and that bothers me, but since he obviously helped people on a mass level as well, I have decided to have a layered and (what I believe to be) healthy perspective on the former Minister of Defense. He was a great man. A consequential one, who we need to learn had flaws. Many of his flaws and errors may have been precipitated by his imprisonment, but the truth is Huey had exhibited lumpen (criminal) tendencies long before the creation of the Black Panther Party. In fact, he surmised in his autobiography that he toyed with creating a pimping ring before deciding on a political organization. That would make it dishonest to blame all of Huey's abuse on prison. So, the lesson I take from all of that is that political education has to be a constant. Despite all of the information floating around out here about the Panthers today, too much of it is either idealistic idol worship or government inspired misinformation designed to discredit the Panthers. Since we know that only the masses of people make history, not individuals, we know Huey is a product of all of us. We produced Huey P. Newton so we have to take credit and blame for his failures as well as his victories. We have to learn more about those victories so we can build upon them and we have to also face his critical errors face on so we can figure out how to avoid making them in the future. We can't fall prey to the reactionary habit of defining people based on their errors e.g. you can do 99 things great, but that one error defines you.
The approach I'm suggesting here in my view is a healthy one that permits us to see people as whole while not judging them solely on shortcomings. This is the best way to honor people. In my heart, I believe Huey was always a man of the people. I believe he would want us to see him in this entirety. I choose to believe he wants us to critically assess his bad behavior and figure out ways to address dysfunction within our communities through our movements for justice. I think he watches over our efforts to improve upon his own to bring us closer to wiping out the oppression that he fought so valiantly to see destroyed.